Obituary: Iris Lemare

John Amis
Monday 12 May 1997 23:02 BST

Iris Lemare will be remembered not only as one of the first women to have a career as a conductor but also as a fervent advocate of young British composers. In the Thirties she helped to form, run, and conduct the Macnaghten-Lemare Concerts (from 1934 to 1937 the Lemare Conerts), often with the help of the composer Elisabeth Lutyens.

Her father was the well-known organist Edwin Lemare. Iris went to Bedales and then to Geneva to study at the Dalcroze / Eurythmics School. Later, at the Royal College of Music in London, she studied organ under George Thalben-Ball and won the Dove Prize. She also entered Malcolm Sargent's conducting class, where she always remembered the kindness of her fellow student Michael Tippett. It seems that Sargent chose students to conduct, but never picked the only girl in the class until Tippett pushed her forward one day. She also studied, as Tippett did, with Adrian Boult and received great support from him.

It was in 1931 that she started the concerts with Elisabeth Lutyens and the violinist Anne Macnaghten. At that time performances were very thin on the ground for British composers. Lemare conducted several of Britten's early works, including the premiere of his Sinfonietta opus I and later his choral "A Boy was Born". She also premiered several works by Alan Rawsthorne, Christian Darnton, Elizabeth Maconchy and many others. At one concert the back desk of her strings included Benjamin Britten, viola, and Elisabeth Lutyens, violin.

Some 40 new works were heard at the Macnaghten-Lemare Concerts, many of them by women (though it was by no means a feminist organisation) and many by composers who became well-known later on.

Lemare became the first woman to conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra, in 1937, and she also conducted the Oxford Chamber Orchestra and the Carlyle Singers. She loved opera and conducted Handel's Xerxes amongst other works in the late 1930s at Pollards, a house in Essex belonging to the Howard family.

During the Second World War she founded the Lemare Orchestra. She featured many new or little-known works and her soloists included Joan Hammond, Benno Moiseivitch, Geza Anda, Peter Donohoe and many others. In the 1970s she worked in opera and presented works by Menotti, Maconchy and Britten, and the premiere of John McCabe's The Play of Mother Courage.

On her 80th birthday, when asked what she would like for a present she declared "a concert", and got one, given by many musician friends. It included a Mozart Concerto played by John McCabe and a piece especially written for the occasion by Elizabeth Maconchy. The following year she was invited by the BBC Singers to conduct a 50th anniversary performance of Britten's "A Boy was Born".

The last time I saw Lemare was in her 90th year at her little house at Askham Bryan near York. By this time she was unable to walk, crippled by a skiing accident only a few years previously. Up to then she had been a keen walker, bird-watcher, swimmer and skier; she was also a dab hand at campanology. She talked about her life with pleasure, no sentimentality and no regrets; she thought she had done her best by music even if she had not hit the heights. She was a lady of charm, warmth and enthusiasm.

Iris Margaret Elsie Lemare, conductor and concert organiser: born London 27 September 1902; died Askham Bryan, Yorkshire 23 April 1997.

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